SoupStone restaurant first opened its doors last June, then promptly closed them again in August for the Canberra lockdown.
It was a tough start for a business but, as students and office workers start to bring life back to the city, SoupStone is well on its way to becoming a bustling local favourite.
SoupStone is located underneath one of the student accommodation halls in City West. It has a no-nonsense interior with a few lanterns and painted masks on the wall serving as decoration, and a couple of TVs showing short video reels of the SoupStone chefs preparing dishes.
With several other Chinese restaurants in the area, owners Li Liao and Yang Yang Wu decided to focus on different regional specialities to set themselves apart.
Li is passionate about flavours and has a wealth of knowledge about what makes a dish from Shanghai different to a Cantonese or Sichuan style meal.
Li spent many years living in Suzhou (close to Shanghai), but the chefs who work at SoupStone have Cantonese backgrounds, so the majority of dishes are influenced by Cantonese cooking techniques with a few Suzhou flavours thrown in.
Serving up a plate of jumbo steamed oysters, Li explains: “This is very authentic Cantonese. The Cantonese only want the original flavour so they just add ginger and shallot because they don’t want to cover the flavour of the oyster.”
Tasting the dish I can see what he means: the enormous oyster is the star of the dish with ginger, shallots, and soy acting as supporting players. It’s a refreshingly light start to the meal.
In contrast, the Sichuan spicy beef is a rich dish with a lot of spice that combines many flavours. SoupStone’s house-made chilli paste provides a base layer of heat, but the addition of dried chilli pieces and thinly sliced fresh chilli means that the heat hits differently with every bite.
The effect is a warm glow that I can feel all through my mouth and sinuses as it heats up my face. Despite the three levels of heat, it’s never painfully hot – but I do avoid some of the scarier looking pieces of chilli! Jelly mushrooms scattered through the dish add great texture, and the beef is incredibly tender and really tasty.
Li serves us up a few other popular dishes on the menu: pepper chicken, lemon prawns, Singapore noodles. They’re classic dishes and executed very well. Everything is cooked perfectly, not too oily, and the flavours are great.
Anyone looking for a favourite dish will be well served, but more adventurous eaters will be rewarded if they move away from menu staples and try something different.
Aside from the regular menu offerings, Li also posts daily specials on social media – dishes you rarely see on a menu around Canberra. Li recently had his chefs make a spicy fish head curry with okra and chilli as a taste of home.
“In Canberra it’s not common, but this is my hometown flavour and hometown taste. I hadn’t tried it for ages,” he says.
As well as their social media specials, SoupStone can put together custom banquets for groups – with some advance warning, of course.
Yang Yang, who runs the restaurant with Li, was busy at the markets picking out fresh seafood to serve as part of a Chinese New Year celebration banquet for a group booking that evening.
Food is an important part of Chinese New Year celebrations and there is often symbolism associated with different ingredients, like the sweet red bean dish Li offers us for dessert.
“The red bean is important because the red colour means good luck, so we serve it for weddings and New Year,” he says.
The red beans are cooked to a paste with lotus seeds, orange zest, and lily bulbs. Li tells me they represent children, good fortune, and strong relationships. This sweet paste is usually served warm for Chinese New Year, but Li has changed it to suit an Australian summer. Topped with coconut cream, grated coconut, and a scoop of ice cream, it’s a delicious and cooling dessert.
Whether you’re looking for some familiar comfort food or hoping to take your tastebuds on an adventure, SoupStone has got you covered.
You can find SoupStone Restaurant at 6/26 Barry Drive, Acton (entrance on Childers St).
Open 11:30 am to 10:30 pm seven days a week for dine-in or takeaway.